The mind-bending possibilities of quantum physics lend themselves to philosophy—to wondering about the theory’s implications for the meaning of life, the idea of free will, the fate of us all. A talented pool of writers have capitalized on those implications to produce an impressive array of entries in this year’s Quantum Shorts contest, which invites short fiction based on the ideas of quantum mechanics. Scientific American and Nature partnered with the Center for Quantum Technologies in Singapore, which organizes the annual competition. Judges, including Scientific American and Nature editors, selected a winner and runner-up in two categories—“open” and “youth”—and online voting identified a “people’s choice” favorite; all winners will receive a cash award, a certificate and an engraved trophy.
The full text of the first-prize story in the open category—“Acceptable Loss” by Przemysław Zańko—is below. Read all the stories at https://shorts.quantumlah.org.
By Przemysław Zańko
“But this will destroy them”, the General said, slowly. "All of them. All the universes except ours.”
“Isn’t that what you wanted?”, I retorted. “To put an end to this multiverse nonsense?”
He pondered that for a moment, puffing his cigar, his stare lost somewhere between the Rembrandts and the Vermeers adorning the walls.
“Indeed. But I would be happy with just closing the portals. Destruction seems…”
“General.” I pushed my shaking hands deeper into the labcoat’s pockets. “Alternate universes. If I came up with this idea, some of my alter egos already did too. They’re talking to your alter egos right now.”
The old man blinked. Then he blinked again.
“And if I say no to destroying all the other worlds…”
“… then some of your alter egos will say yes.”
He puffed the cigar again and opened the folder I brought him.
“Well then, Mr. Beckett. You better explain this Decoherence Wave again. And fast.”
Afterwards I just sat there in the empty half-lit lab, gin in hand, waiting for the guilt that wouldn’t come.
The biggest genocide in history. And yet all I could think about was whether smoking right by the “No smoking” sign would get me into trouble.
I bet Oppenheimer never lost sleep over that.
The portals to other worlds didn’t solve anything. They just allowed people to run away from their problems. Don’t like who won the election? Go live in a world where the losers won. Don’t like your job? Find a parallel Earth where an unskilled lazy brat like you can live like a king. Don’t like your life? Find your alter ego with the life you want and ask if they’d like to swap places.
It needs to end.
It’s like when a country opens its borders too much. The immigrants. The brain drain. People stop appreciating what they have and start chasing cheap imported thrills. They start getting ideas. And once you start getting ideas… How did that old poem go? If you open your mind too much, your brain will fall out. If we don’t…
“You need to stop this, John.”
I sat there, frozen, unable to speak, unable to face that all-too-familiar voice.
Donna stepped into the light.
“I know about the Decoherence Wave.”
I downed my gin.
“Hi, honey. Long time no see.”
My wife’s face was pale but her eyes were pure steel.
“You’re going to destroy all quantum information. Collapse the multiverse.”
I smiled, leaning back in my chair.
“Exactly. No more doppelgängers. No more uncertainty. One world, fully explainable by classical physics. Back the way it was. The way it should have been. There are only two possibilities: yes or no. Black or white. Whoever wants to have it otherwise…”
“There are people there”, she said quietly.
“People from our world. My friends. Your colleagues.”
“I guess they should’ve stayed where they belonged then.”
She didn’t even try to conceal her contempt.
“So you’re best pals with the General now. You even sound like him. My God, John. You used to hate these guys, remember?”
I just laughed.
“Perhaps I have come to understand them. Perhaps you have helped me realize that the world was much better before we’ve started letting all those strangers in.”
“How very white of you.”
Oh, the sweet, familiar, teeth-clenching rage. I have missed you, buddy.
“You know, things used to be so simple. So precise. The cat, either alive or dead. People, either apart or together. We used to know what to expect from life, and now…”
“That’s what this is about? You’re destroying the multiverse because of me?”
“You left me!” I was standing now, fists clenched, and she took a tentative step back. “For him! Do you have any idea how humiliated I felt when you proposed the swap? Our marriage wasn’t perfect – I wasn’t perfect – but…”
“Not perfect?”, Donna hissed. “Not perfect? By the time I proposed the swap we had no marriage! You wouldn’t hear about couples therapy, you wouldn’t even talk to me! Day after day locked up in your stupid lab, trying to find a way to close the portals and bring back the good old days… You think I’m proud of what I did? I know I was wrong. But you sure as hell didn’t leave me with a lot of right choices.”
“So you left me for my alter ego”, I spat. “That was your brilliant solution?”
One tear glistened in her eye, just one.
“I just wanted my husband back.”
I turned away, fighting the urge to smash something. I didn’t fight it for long.
“You don’t have to do this”, Donna said softly, as I finally stopped kicking the broken glass and just stood there, breathing heavily. “Your alter egos won’t destroy the multiverse just because they figured out how. People aren’t like that.”
“People are exactly like that.”
“No, John. That’s just you.”
“It’s too late anyway. The General would have pressed the button by now.”
“Not if you lied and told him you were wrong. That the Wave will destroy his world too.”
I smiled at her.
“And why would I do that, exactly?”
She smiled back, sadly.
“I know you wouldn’t. But fortunately my John would.”
I stared at her for ten very long seconds.
Then I ran like hell.
The General exhaled a cloud of smoke.
“How do I know you’re not an impostor as well?”, he asked calmly. “How do I know you’re not lying?”
I slammed my hand on his desk.
“There’s no time! Don’t you see? The longer we hesitate – you must use the Wave now! Make us the universe that wins, otherwise we’re just as dead as…”
And then I noticed it. Staring me in the face.
I swallowed hard.
“I thought you preferred cigars?”
The General gave me a warm smile, putting out his cigarette in the cut glass ashtray.
“What can I say, John. People change.”